It’s easy to see why Plenty River and its surrounding parkland is valued by locals. Its meandering bike paths and towering Manna Gums interspersed with the more recently restored ground cover make this green area of Yallambie a very special place .
What Friends of Plenty River does might at times seem recreational – they chat amicably about other parks they’ve recently visited and discuss spotting the occasional Tiger Snake in amongst the now-dense undergrowth along the river banks – but these leisurely conversations are deceiving. This Friends group spends its time in the dirt and sometimes mud, planting seedlings of plants indigenous to the area – an area that group member Anne says is rich in history. The old Yallambie homestead, located just up the hill, still retains a presence throughout the park, especially as some of the impressive pines leftover from an earlier time dominate parts of the landscape. The Hoop and Bunya Pines are particularly significant, having been provided by famous botanist Ferdinand von Mueller to homestead owner Thomas Wragge in the late 1800s.
These pines are native to other parts of Australia but not indigenous to the Plenty River area. There are also still remnants of the homestead’s greenery in sight, most strangely a large stand of bamboo that is heritage-listed. It is a fascinating area for this reason, too; Anne explains that there is ‘friction between the European history of the area and the need for more indigenous landscapes for wildlife’. Whilst problematic in some ways, this dichotomy highlights the range of connections that exist to this unique green space tucked away behind Melbourne’s bustling north-eastern suburbs and close to the busy Lower Plenty Road.
The Friends work hard on the second Sunday of every month, attempting to restore the indigenous vegetation along the banks of Plenty River – on some days, a river that may be full to the brim after rain. Although they work tirelessly, Kevin, the convenor of the group, says that ‘we will never get it back quite to what it was before white man came.’ This is a story told many times over by Friends groups across the country. And yet, whilst a sad reality, it doesn’t prevent Friends of Plenty River from getting out here every month to either weed or plant; Kevin says ‘you just do your bit’. When asked whether they do it for conservation or aesthetics, Kevin says that ‘it’s a bit of this and a bit of that.’
Indeed, it was the activity of weeding that resulted in the formation of this group back in the 1990s. Kevin and his wife, Alice, had begun to notice the incredible amount of hawthorn and Common Ivy on their walks along the river, not far from their home. One day, Kevin decided he’d had enough – nobody was putting in the effort to remove the intrusive plants, and it was time someone did. Kevin himself got out there and began piling up stacks of weeded hawthorn on the side of the walking track. It wasn’t long before others started to notice, and the local council (Eltham Council at the time) helped Kevin and Alice form Friends of Plenty River in the hopes of transforming the concerted efforts of two people into the dedication of an entire group.
Today, Friends of Plenty River is made up of about ten regular members, some of whom found out about the work of the group simply by walking past during one of the Sunday morning working bees. The appeal of being local is also evident here, with some members often volunteering with other groups in the area, but wanting to dedicate at least a portion of their efforts to Friends of Plenty River, because the parkland is close to their home.
Kevin assures me that their working bees aren’t all about getting bogged down in work, although there is a lot of it. If somebody new attends, then he encourages the group to chat with them and make them feel welcome. This quality seems to have played a role in keeping many long-term members coming back year after year.
Julia has been part of the group for almost twenty years. She has an affinity for the local wildlife, explaining that they have recently started seeing various robins and scrubwrens flitting amongst the low-lying vegetation that wouldn’t be there now if not for the dedication of the group. Julia has a vast knowledge of the plants and animals that call this place home, extending to the smaller locals, such as insects and microorganisms, that live in the soil and are an important part of the wider ecosystem. However, she says that ‘I think I know a lot but then I come down here and I realise I don’t.’ It is amazing to think that even those who have been visiting this place for years still discover something new every month.
Whilst some, like Julia, are interested in the wildlife and others, like Anne, are fascinated by the local history, most of the people present at the Friends’ working bees are here for one very common reason – they want to give back. Long-time volunteer Richard returns again and again to help weed and plant because he feels a strong obligation to contribute.
Similarly, group member Lee explains how it is a great opportunity to get involved with something local and help conserve an area that he already visits regularly on his walks. This seems to be a common thread throughout many Friends groups – if you’re walking past anyway, why not stop for a while and lend a helping hand?
Unsurprisingly, then, Kevin implies that his favourite thing about the work is feeling connected to others; it’s not just about helping local wildlife or making the park a nicer place to visit. This coming-together of community and conservation is at the heart of what Friends of Plenty River does. It is also a surefire way to attract new volunteers – those who are just as passionate about getting involved in an energetic group of conservation enthusiasts.
Friends of Plenty River usually meets on the second Sunday of every month from 10am to 12pm, except for January.
This story was originally featured in the Banyule Community Conservationists magazine published by Remember The Wild and supported by Banyule City Council. You can view the magazine in full here.
Banner image courtesy of Chris McCormack.